They're here. They arrive in SUVs, with bikes strapped to the back, and in convertibles, eager to put the top down. Their license plates are a geography lesson of the eastern United States: Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, and of course, Ohio.
Some of them drive a little more slowly than we do over the bridges to Hilton Head Island to drink in the view and enjoy the red carpet entrance to our community. We love them all -- the families, the golf foursomes and the empty-nesters searching for the perfect retirement spot.
Welcome them with open arms because tourism -- and the value it brings -- is something we should never take for granted. According to research from the University of South Carolina Beaufort's Lowcountry and Resort Islands Tourism Institute, 2.3 million visitors arrive on our doorstep each year and leave a lasting and positive impact long after they're gone.
Our local tourism industry drives our economy to the tune of more than $1 billion a year, according to noted economist Donald Schunk, who has studied tourism's economic impact. It sounds like just another big-picture economic statistic until you bring it a little closer to home.
The visitors in our hotels, restaurants and on our golf courses pay sales, accommodations, hospitality and attractions taxes. If not for them, Hilton Head Island households would bear more of the tax burden. But thanks to them, each island household saves more than $1,000 annually in taxes. Statewide, the average tax relief thanks to tourism is more than $699 per household, based on research by the U.S. Travel Association.
Are we overburdening our visitors with taxes? The answer is "no." Hilton Head Island's 11 percent total occupancy tax rate is lower than many other destinations, such as Miami where visitors pay 13 percent, or Scottsdale, Ariz., where visitors pay a 15 percent tax on overnight lodging. Our visitors enjoy some of the lowest accommodations tax rates found anywhere in the country.
In addition, local property tax dollars are not being spent to bring in more visitors. Our visitors foot the bill for promoting this island destination. Accommodations taxes paid by visitors are invested back into marketing our No. 1 industry, along with private-sector investment from the local tourism business community.
Do you enjoy dining out? Do you love the arts or great theater? You have our visitors to thank for the vast selection of dining and cultural options we enjoy. Without them, your favorite restaurant or theater might not exist.
As you walk along our beaches, remember that visitors also pay for nearly all of the cost of beach renourishment through local accommodations taxes. Without tourists, the tab for these critical environmental projects would be paid by residents.
There's so much more to bringing visitors to our area than launching a website or printing a brochure or two. There isn't a business in the Lowcountry, or anywhere else for that matter, that would survive if it didn't understand its customer and carefully track their needs and how to deliver their products.
That's exactly what we do.
When it comes to tourism marketing, we carefully research where our visitors are coming from; how many are coming; how much they're spending; what they love about our destination; and very importantly, what makes them choose to come back.
I've said it before and it bears repeating: We're all in the tourism industry. Realtors and their spouses, teachers in our local schools, all rely on tourism. The entrepreneur launching a business depends on a healthy tourism economy to thrive. The retired couple who moved here 10 years ago depends on tourism to preserve their home value for future generations.
This week, Hilton Head Island will once again be on the world stage thanks to the RBC Heritage presented by Boeing and the phenomenal broadcast coverage it brings. Every year, it serves as a great reminder of how lucky we are to call the Lowcountry our home.
Next time you're visiting somewhere and someone asks you, "Where are you from?," notice their reaction. It's usually one mixed with a little awe and envy because they often dream about what it would be like to live in a place like ours. We have you, tourism and our millions of visitors to thank.
Bill Miles is president and CEO of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.